Research evidence that informs educational practice

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Different forms of quantitative and qualitative evidence allow researchers to explore and examine all the disciplines encapsulate within the field of educational research. Together these two sorts of evidence set out to even provide data on the endless multi-faceted behavioural dilemmas found in educational settings. From a clear methodological prospective the two evidence forms are gathered and analysed in very different ways. However, as I will discuss later it is possible to perform an amalgamation of these two evidence forms to advise educational practice (Elliott, 2007).

Quantitative research evidence aims to obtain definitive facts, while qualitative evidence is obtained from the viewpoint of the researcher to provide a descriptive account for the observed data. Quantitative evidence is primarily used to identify specific trends, statistical truths and to find out what facts exist in reality. Analysis of quantitative evidence is therefore carried out using robust statistical procedures (Hara, 1995).

These forms of evidence have both unique and shared characteristics, as shown in Table 1. Qualitative evidence is stereotypically gathered from either researcher and participant observations or open-ended interviews. Quantitative evidence on the other hand is normally obtained by either specific design experiments and survey research or structured interviews and specific observations (Bogdan et al, 2003).

The standardised nature of statistical data makes quantitative evidence appear the most desirable option of the two. However educational research weaves a complex path amongst many issues which are near impossible to present in a quantitative, statistical way (Hara, 1995). For example investigating the complexity of human behaviour and representing the underlying processes numerically is a very difficult task to achieve (Solutes, 1990). Qualitative research evidence attempts to overcome this problem by verbally analyzing human behaviour. The unique vocal descriptive nature of the evidence allows the investigator to explore the psychological dimensions of the subject and where possible ascertain the significance human behaviour plays within educational practice.

What are the main similarities and differences between these types of evidence?

These two types of evidence have different attributes which support their separate uses. Quantitative research evidence ideally provides results that define facts. Consequently if additional research was carried using the same procedures and conditions, it would be technically possible to replicate the same results. Unlike qualitative research the perspective of the researcher does not have any influence on the evidence. Put more specifically quantitative research can be said to be "objective and value free" (Solutes, 1990). Equally in contrast to qualitative evidence, theories developed from quantitative evidence are not context bounded and as Popkewitz (1984) states "consist of axiomatic principles". It is therefore possible to generalize and apply the evidence universally since the statistical analysis of the evidence reduces ambiguities and contradictions which might occur in the research data (Hara, 1995).

In contrast qualitative evidence emphasises the importance of the researcher's viewpoint within the research process. Solutes (1990) specifies that qualitative research evidence "is able to encompass interpersonal, social, and cultural contexts of education more fully than quantitative research". The descriptive nature of qualitative evidence allows for detailed and diverse accounts in topics which cannot be achieved thorough quantitative educational research evidence.

Each form of evidence has identifiable weaknesses, typically related to the benefits the other type offers over the other. Quantitative research evidence for example is flawed as the perspective of the researcher and the unique descriptive evidence they could provide is not deliberated when explaining the results. As Hara (1995) explains quantitative research evidence does not pursue the connection of the human mind and the extent to which psychological issues, affect the research results.

Qualitative research evidence has opposite weaknesses. As the viewpoint of the researcher is central to data collection; any theoretical model developed from the evidence must be considered as specific to circumstance and setting in which it was originally obtained. This makes it difficult to attempt any form of generalization of the evidence. It could be subsequently argued that it therefore has limited applications to any setting outside of the original research parameters (Firestone, 1987). An even more significant flaw is perhaps the researcher's ability to unwittingly manipulate the research evidence. For example if a sensitive ethical topic was being examined, it would impossible for the evidence to be "value free from the researcher's personal judgements" (Hara 1995).

There are also shared qualities between these types of research evidence. To a certain extent all types of educational research deal with qualities; the difference being that with quantitative evidence these qualities are counted. The definitive break between the two, with quantitative evidence dealing solely with numerical data and qualitative being solely descriptive can be considered an oversimplification. Most forms of evidence use some form of numeracy, words can be counted, and likewise numbers can be descriptive. Several characteristics of research evidence can be said to be universal; the procedure involved in the selection of the population sample, the identification of dependent and independent variables and the control factors involved (Bogdan et al, 2003). It is important to realise that qualitative and quantitative evidence are not obtained from totally differing research paradigms (Gorard, 2002).

Characteristics of Educational Research Evidence

Evidential Data Types

Methods for Collecting Evidence

Conclusions/Findings

(idealized)

Qualitative

framework

Research opinions

Descriptive

Personal Documents

Field notes

Observations

Participant observation

First person accounts

Open-ended interviewing

Reviewing of documentation

(e.g. workbooks)

Grounded Theory

Develop understanding

Describe multiple realities

Develop sensitive concepts

Quantitative

framework

Statistics

Quantifiable coding

Counts, measures, scores.

Operationalized variables

Experiments

Survey Research

Structure Interviewing

Quasi experiments

Structured Observation

Theory Testing

Statistical description of processes

Establish a proven factual relationship between variables and prediction

Table 1: Comparison of Evidential Data Types, Data Collection Methods and Idealised Findings for Educational Research, depending whether it is based on a Qualitative or Quantitative framework.

(Compiled from an exhaustive list of educational research methods and protocols: Bogdan et al, 2003. Figure 1.1)

How these types of research evidence have informed or might inform a particular area of educational practice?

The field of educational practice I am familiar with is Mathematics teaching within a Secondary School setting. Research evidence of different forms has heavily influenced teaching methods in Mathematics. This has included for example identifying the most successful pedagogical routes at different stages in the curriculum, as well the most effective way of teaching Mathematics to students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds (Reynolds et al, 1999). In this section I will primarily examine the use of qualitative evidence at informing my area of educational practice, as its descriptive nature allows a far wider range of topics (social, behavioural) to be examined within the classroom setting. Ideally educational practice should be informed by a combination of quantitative and qualitative evidence. The disadvantages they bring as separate sources are overcome by uniting their intrinsic qualities. This view is backed by Ann Oakley (2007), a leader in attempts to facilitate evidence-based practice in educational research. In her response to Elliot's (2007) critique she highlights the importance of qualitative evidence being combined with that from experimental or other quantitative research evidence.

Away from improving specific mathematics learning theory, research evidence has also influenced teaching methods in a much broader sense through classroom behaviour management. For example qualitative evidence from large-scale observation studies examining teaching behaviours correlated with achievement results has established a set of "ideal teacher qualities" (Arnon et al, 2007)). These characteristics have then been actively taught and conveyed as qualities that one should aspired to during teacher training. A sample of the desirable teaching qualities include the importance of organisation, the installation of clear rules, the effective use of certain positive language, the reinforcement of desirable pupil behaviour, maintaining attention stimulation and continuous classroom monitoring (Secada,1992).

Research evidence has also been collected to ascertain the way Mathematics lessons in terms of the level of enjoyment are perceived by the learner. The aim being to identify any consistency between learners' perceptions to help make the subject more appealable and "fun". Qualitative evidence on student attitudes and their relationship to achievement was collected from questionnaires administered to large sample groups (McLeod et al, 1994). Despite the initial qualitative nature of the evidence gathered statistical techniques were used to evaluate and indentify and trends that might help improve the way mathematics teachings perceived from the perspective of a young student. The way mathematics education is influenced by the social organization of schools has also been examined through qualitative evidence (McLeod et al, 1994). Research evidence has shown some teaching strategies promote a clearer sense of belongingness among students who would otherwise not see themselves as integral parts of the Mathematics classroom. Simple modifications to a teachers pedagogical approach have been shown to help encourage their students overall motivation towards the subject. One such study by Hart (1989) is good example of how useful qualitative evidence has been used to establish the cultural influences on Mathematics learning.

Research evidence has informed practice in other fields away from the 'production of knowledge' (non-teacher research) and the 'improvement of practice' (action research) (Elliott, 2007). It has also informed theory development within Mathematics learning (Marsden, 2007). Advances in grounded theory have brought considerable improvement to educational practice. For example, Black et al (2003) Moore et al. (2003) Brown et al. (2003), all base the interventions used in their studies on theoretical underpinnings from 'constructivist principles', 'active learning' and 'Vygotskian theory' respectively.

However it is argued that the importance theory plays at inform educational is over emphasized. Gorard (2002) supports this view when he states "educational research evidence cannot inform learning theories in the same way that social science disciplines build and test theories due to the nature of education itself as a distinctly human and moral enterprise".

Quantitative evidence from statistically reliable data sources, such as randomized controlled trials (RCT's) has also played a role informing Mathematics teaching (Thomas et al, 2004). Although relative to qualitative evidence its availability is limited. This is because for a true educational experiment to take place there must firstly be previous evidence (theoretical, pedagogical, or laboratory based) that indicates the experimental intervention would be of benefit to justify trialling it. Otherwise it would be deemed unethical to deny the comparison learners the potentially beneficial intervention (Kember, 2000).

From a personal prospective research evidence is most useful when it can provide definitive yes or no answers to questions about effective teaching practice. For example within my classroom I have access to both a standard whiteboard and a modern interactive whiteboard (IWB). I alternate between boards depending on the requirements of the topic being taught. After recently reviewing the research evidence available on the use of IWB within Mathematics I now know I should tryto involve it use more within my lessons; as there is clear research evidence which shows its use has positive effects on teaching and student learning. In a study by Glover et al (2007) observations of video-recorded lessons taught by 'successful' teachers drawn from Mathematics secondary schools led to the identification of three types of practice involving IWB that have shown to increase pupil interactivity and learning. This is a rare example where research evidence can be directly applied without modification to specifically improve the effectiveness of my educational practice. More importantly this research evidence helps provide specific guidelines that I can adopt, which have been proven from a body of research rather from personal experiences and assumptions. This is a considerable change and a step in the direction towards evidence-based practice as outlined by Hargreaves (2007).

In response to how these sorts of evidence inform my area of educational practice, it can be summarised to do so when the evidence points towards small absorbable recommendations. That is to say, evidence which speculates on large scale theories and grand pedagogical objectives has limited immediate practical applications with my area of educational practice. Qualitative evidence appears to produce these types of recommendations more often than quantitative forms do. This is partially due to the descriptive style of qualitative evidence requiring minimal interpretation allowing it to be taken at face value; whereas quantitative evidence requires more detailed analysis (Hara, 1995). From a functional perspective a teacher is simply a conveyor of knowledge. Any evidence which provides detailed instructional advice at improving the transfer and retention of this knowledge in students (whether it is classroom management or effective teaching styles) is ideal. Evidence of this nature is the most effective at informing my personal field of educational practice.

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